TO “B” OR NOT TO “b”: A Question of Identity

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“What a thing to be both unique and familiar and still unlike any other. Lead or be led astray. Follow your light or lose it. You can’t wear a crown with your head down…the question is who are you?” Beyonce, Black Is King.

In 2015 Lori L. Tharps, a journalism lecturer at Temple University wrote, “Black with a capital ‘B’ refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces.” Pan Africanist and a founder of the American organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W.E.B. Dubois, lobbied in the 1920’s for Negro, rather than negro, stating emphatically, “Eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.” Ground rules of anglophone grammar states “proper nouns” are to be capitalized, such as the names of people and places; and in the case of Black for a people, it shows respect and recognition. Both argued that capitalization does matter.
Now, some unfamiliar with my ‘connect the dots’ style may not think this is relevant to Africa and particularly Ethiopia where the notion of identifying through color is a no-no. So here we go back in time. In the 1600’s European scientists including German Bernhard Varen, English John Ray and French Francois Bernier categorized humans based on “biological definition of species”. By the 1700’s and thereafter these “scientific” definitions were massaged to justify the heinous act of slavery and subsequent race-based theories which relegated Blacks to sub-human status with therefore no need to consider their human rights much less economic or social well-being. One of these commonly used names was Negro, literally the root word for the color black in Spanish and Portuguese. By the late 1800’s, when Emperor Menelik II had defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adowa, and during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who defeat the invading Italians again in the mid 1900’s, Negroe was the accepted lingua franca for Black folks, honed by White folks.
For Ethiopians, identity had not been coopted by colonizers and hence their basic right to self-determination and cultural sovereignty and identity remained intact. This is why I argue that the stories which circulate periodically, peddling politically motivated propaganda that both Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I denied being Black, are false. Their reported declarations in response to being asked if they were Negroes was a resounding No. If indeed this is true, I argue that to answer NO, in the aforementioned context, is correct. The denial of being labeled as Negro speaks to a strong sense of identity as Ethiopia was a sovereign empire, not identifying with such branding, notwithstanding local references such as k’eyi, tayim and ye k’eyi dama describing the range of hues dotting the diverse and noble nation. They were Ethiopians, bekka. (Factoid, the word Ethiopia is said to be rooted in Greco-Roman epigraph as early as c. 800, a compound word meaning “burnt face”.) Point being, it is curious that currently some well-learnt and well-spoken Ethiopians can push such nonsense about both Emperors whose victories over foreign powers fueled the Pan African Movement. Specifically, the Rastafari Movement embraced and emphasized Ethiopia as a beacon of light, inspiring Black pride for Black People at home and abroad, what has evolved into the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The nexus between Ethiopia and Black with capital B is identity; it’s the desire to protect legacy, culture, language, spirituality, food, dress, music, hairstyles; its love, hope and determination. The capital B reminds us that the millions of Africans ripped from the continent and displaced in the Diaspora, whose names and tongues were taken away, never stopped being Black, code for African, grasping at what genetic memory could provide augmented with good ole “African ingenuity” aka “n%#*@r riggin” to survive. The nomenclature, Ethiopia, reminds us that all Nations of this ubiquitous land rallied for millennia to protect the all-encompassing identity; preserving the precious dynamic heritage for generations to come.
Mahmud Ahmed sings in Ethiopia Hagere, loosely translated and sung by several generations, “…I am proud of you, I can’t take your name from my mouth, the word itself is sweet like honey to my mouth that’s why I always call your name. Our beautiful country that we are proud of, you are more than anything else, where you come from is a deep source…you are my world…we grew up on your soil and we are beautiful, we are your fruit and we continue to give fruit…Ethiopia hagere…Ethiopia my country…”. This same love and delight is expressed present day in Beyonce’s Black Is King visual album released this week and touted as a “… a celebration of blackness, a love letter to Africa… an ambitious attempt to spiritually connect African diaspora worldwide to their ancestral homeland.” Lady Bey voices the trailer on youtube, a gripping journey through time, yesterday, today and tomorrow; connecting space and heritage through ancient and futuristic African images, glorifying the strength and resilience of Blackness. “What a thing to be both unique and familiar and still unlike any other. Lead or be led astray. Follow your light or lose it. You can’t wear a crown with your head down…the question is who are you?” Take it from Beyonce’, Black Is King… with a capital B.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.